Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Is Sinking in the Murray–Darling Basin

By Tom Chesson

Applied research suffers cuts while science loses farmers’ trust.

Recommendation 14 is one of the most important yet largely ignored recommendations from the Windsor Parliamentary Inquiry into the Murray–Darling Basin water reforms: “that the Commonwealth Government focus greater investment into research and development to improve irrigation efficiency”.

If we do not substantially increase funding for agriculture research, development and extension services the nation’s food security will be severely compromised. We cannot keep doing more with less.

While Recommendation 14 was adopted “in principle” by the government, we are at a loss as to why the government has abolished Land and Water Australia and the Irrigation Futures, Cotton and Forestry Cooperative Research Centres. This just makes no sense.

Food and fibre producers are proud of the role we play in feeding and clothing the nation and the world. We are proud of the fact that we are among the world’s best farmers. We know that we would never be the best without the support of our practical scientists. We know that science in this country is underfunded and our productivity is declining because of it. We need increased funding for the practical scientific endeavours that will enables us to produce more with less.

More than anything we need extension services that take the research from the lab to the paddock. The lack of dialogue between farmers and scientists is creating levels of mistrust that are not doing anyone any good.

We need scientists, but we would also like a bit of respect. We are the front line environmentalists and food producers. We are not Luddites. We take research and apply it in our operations. Without it we would not be internationally competitive.

Agriculture in Australia is recognised as the best enabler of new technology of any industry in the country. The drought saw farmers embrace a range of new technologies, proving that necessity is the mother of all invention.

Last century no one went into a fight without a team of lawyers, but nowadays no one goes to a policy fight without lawyers and a posse of scientists. As a direct result it should come as no surprise that many policy-makers believe that scientific opinions, like legal opinions, can be bought to fit whichever side of the policy debate you happen to sit on.

This prostitution of scientific opinion is devaluing science in general and turning scientists into activists, often resulting in a high degree of mistrust that I believe is unfortunately increasing.

This is particularly true of the “precautionary principle” concept. While it has a role to play, it is being used far too often by some scientists to justify their advocacy. When the precautionary principle is coupled with the old “trust me, I’m a peer-reviewed scientist with heaps of journal articles to my name”, facts often become the first casualties.

Scientists need to prove their hypotheses if they are to have any credibility. Destroying communities because there may be a risk is overused and is creating a “do nothing” society. Computer models may be the world’s best and peer-reviewed, but if the assumptions used are wrong then their outcomes are going to be wrong.

We would like the opportunity to peer-review some research, particularly if it is undertaken on our farms, to ensure that the theory has some basis in what is actually occurring on the ground.

We are sick and tired of having our lifelong experiences discounted and ignored. We are sick and tired of being used by some scientific organisations as a whipping boy for fundraising. We would like to see an audit undertaken to ensure that scarce funding isn’t being siphoned off by organisations that continually make spurious claims to the media to justify their existence and more funding.

We take what scientists have to say very seriously and we respect intelligence, but commonsense and practical solutions often seem to elude Australia’s best and brightest.

Tom Chesson is Chief Executive Officer of the National Irrigators’ Council.